Reflections from Nicholas Helburn

Reflections from Nicholas Helburn

The following is Nick Helburn's account of his experience as a smoke jumper. The story was published in "Static Lines and Canopies":


What was it like to jump out of the airplane? Did you ever get used to it? Not for me!

No! There was always some tension, some butterflies in the stomach. The first few jumps were the worst. The first one, I didn't really know what was ahead of me. We all had been very well conditioned. We had jumped forward so many hundreds of times from that crouching position within foot outside the open door. If it had been the Devil himself who gave you that tap on the shoulder, I think I would have jumped.

The second jump was worse that the first and the third was worst of all. By that time I knew from experience that I was 2,000 feet above the ground and the only thing between me and death was a few pounds of flimsy nylon. Still, when the spotter tapped you on the shoulder, out you went.

I remember that first jump most vividly. I'd only flown once before, an eight minute hop from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard Island in a light six passenger Piper. By comparison the Ford Trimotor, sheathed in metal, looked enormous and much too heavy to get off the ground. We had suited up many times in practice, but this one was for real. We sat in two rows of four facing each other, trying not to look scared.

The motors roared. The plane lumbered along the grass runway. The tail came up as we gained speed. The bumpiness suddenly stopped as we lifted off and climbed.

I never asked what the others were thinking for somehow this was not a time for sharing. This was silent, masked pretense. Each one conjuring up his maximum machismo. To avoid other thoughts, all I could do was to say over and over to myself: "No one but a fool would go up in an airplane with the idea of jumping out on purpose." Again and again and again I said it like an emergency mantra.

Dexter McBride was sitting next to me. Before being drafted he had been the City Attorney of Norfolk, Virginia. He must have planned ahead, for he was reading a small paperback. I looked down to see the title: The Release of Nervous Tension.

And when the time came each of us hooked our static line on the cable above the open door, crouched down with one foot on the step outside, and with a tap on the shoulder stepped out into the unsupported open air.


--Taken from Static Lines and Canopies: Stories from the Smoke Jumpers of 1943-1945 Civilian Service Camp 103, Missoula, Montana. Ed. Asa Mundell. Beaverton: 1993. Print.